Build Support Internally, Trust Externally with Gay Market


In the mid-1990s American Airlines advised employees to remove pillows and blankets from flights headed toward the gay rights march on Washington to avoid possible HIV contamination. Gay and lesbian organizations and media nationwide slammed the airline for its ignorant, stereotypical message. It looked as though the company had suffered irreparable reputation damage with these key travelers. Instead, Tim Doke, the airline's VP of communications, took a proactive approach that has made American's reputation tops among gay travelers and has propelled the airline to a position as the official carrier for almost every national gay and lesbian organization. The process was a long-term effort to communicate with the gay and lesbian community and re-earn their trust, and to educate American Airlines employees and build gay pride within the organization itself. Experts view it as a model of how to conduct PR with a demographic that accounts for anywhere from 6 to 10 percent of the American adult population. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered are in fact a powerful but under-served group. Research shows their earnings don't differ sharply from heterosexuals', but they do have higher disposable income and tend to be trendsetters. Get Your House In Order Doke recognized the importance of these passengers - and that the message American had conveyed didn't support its brand and values. He turned to a former colleague, Bob Witeck, of Witeck Combs Communications, which specializes in marcom in the gay and lesbian community. "We asked [American] the question, 'Do you want us to make you look better, or do you want to be better?'" Witeck says. The airline responded by evaluating its internal training, starting a gay and lesbian employee group and ensuring that gay employees had a seat at the table. Once it had handled internal issues, the airline began to work within the gay community to serve as an official carrier and sponsor for trusted organizations and work in conjunction with gay- owned travel providers. "When you have your house in order, publicize the fact that you have [gay-friendly] policies," says Cindy Abel, president of bizvox Marketing Communications in Atlanta. She too emphasizes the importance of getting the internal infrastructure right before approaching this marketplace. If your company doesn't support domestic partner benefit plans, for example, it may be tough to sell your organization externally to gays and lesbians. Being successful in this marketplace may mean becoming an advocate for change within your organization before you ever put together a media plan. Once your "house is in order," look to trusted organizations and publications within the gay community as your first step to building a relationship with gay consumers. When Abel launched a campaign for the Atlanta Travel & Tourism Board to reach gay travelers with information on Atlanta's attractions, she used grassroots methods. She contacted organizations throughout the Southeast, asking if they would forward her materials to their members and email lists, "thereby giving their seal of approval to what was happening in Atlanta." Her marcom campaign also included ad buys in gay publications, not just for their advertising value, but for the implicit message they sent: The Atlanta Travel & Tourism Board was openly supporting homosexual publications and organizations. Supporting these bastions of the gay community "not in a closeted way" is key to earning trust, Abel says. Being open about your support of the gay community also means voicing the message in the mainstream media. It wins the trust of homosexuals who see that your organization openly supports their causes, plus it reaches the many members of the gay community who don't rely on gay media for their news. "There are a lot of gay folks who don't read gay magazines and newspapers," Abel says. Her Atlanta tourism campaign was featured in more than 50 publications, both gay and mainstream. Understanding the audience - i.e. the fact that not every member of the gay community subscribes to gay media - is key, says John Sonego, director of communications for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Sonego says all too often companies focus on a very narrow definition of the gay marketplace: high-income white males. "Companies that have actually targeted gay and lesbian consumers tend to focus on one end of the spectrum. But it's a big target audience, and it's very diverse." Take advantage of recent studies conducted by Witeck Combs and Harris Interactive showing more accurate breakdowns of the audience: It's approximately 60 percent male and 40 percent female; gay males tend to flock to urban areas, while lesbians are more often found in suburbs; 20 percent of gays and lesbians are raising children; gays tend to be trendsetters and highly brand loyal. Most importantly, however, Sonego says it's time for corporate America to recognize the importance of this audience period. He says he sees a reticence among corporations to reach out to the gay market, and often hears unfounded concerns about attacks from conservative Christian groups. "There's a real reluctance to recognize this audience as worthy of attention. There have been enough demographic studies to show you can be pretty successful if you include them." (Contacts: Witeck, bwiteck@witeckcombs.com; Abel, cabel@bizvox.cc; Sonego, 323/634-2010) Where to Start U.S. Census Data shows the highest concentrations of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendereds live in the following areas: Counties: San Francisco, Calif. Monroe, Fla. Hampshire, Mass. Washington, D.C. DeKalb, Ga. Manhattan, N.Y. Arlington, Va. Suffolk, Ma. Sonoma, Calif. Denver, Colo. Metro Areas San Francisco/Oakland Santa Fe Portland, Maine Burlington Seattle Miami/Ft. Lauderdale Austin Madison, Wis. Albuquerque Atlanta Look not only to nationally known publications (like Out and Advocate) for media outreach, but also to local gay and lesbian pubs in these areas, Abel advises. Some of them may have only 10,000 subscribers, but those 10,000 are very loyal readers and take the advice of the pubs to heart. National organizations like PRSA also have resources to consider; PRSA includes tools for reaching gay and lesbian audiences under the umbrella of its "Multicultural" networking group, for example. Measurement Matters Mind-share with media is among the toughest PR outcomes to quantify. It's also one of the most important, and, if measured effectively, can be a powerful tool for your media relations programs. Shawn Whalen, VP with Schwartz Communications, developed a "Top Media Awareness" chart for client XcelleNet. The chart, updated quarterly, ranks on a scale of 1 to 5 a particular reporter's awareness of and relationship with the client. In order to create objective measures, Whalen worked out the following system: "1" equals no awareness or relationship "2" indicates "slight" awareness - i.e. a meeting, but no coverage as of yet "3" indicates good awareness, with two or more meetings and one article covering the client "4" is very good awareness, meaning the reporter consistently writes about the client "5" is excellent, indicating that the reporter writes about the client in every applicable story Whalen says the chart helps guide his team by showing which relationships are most important and which need the most work. Plus, by comparing current awareness charts to past charts, the PR team can demonstrate its progress in moving the media relations needle. (Whalen: swhalen@schwartz-pr.com; 781/684-6538)

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